Search and Brand Authenticity

By Matt Spiegel, CEO
Appeared in Search Engine Watch

In my column last week, I highlighted some of the more memorable moments from Google's annual partner summit. One of the many highlights: a discussion of brands and authenticity.

Marketing executives have faced a rough few years as the keepers of brands. We've all seen the stats highlighting a CMO's life expectancy: less than two years. In the post-bubble marketing world, finance and procurement departments have seen their influence rise. One of their set goals included making sure "creative marketing types" don't forget about business results. While unfortunate, it's hard to argue this was unnecessary. With the need to market an authentic brand, it's time for marketing to reclaim some of its glory.

Authenticity has never been more crucial to the success of a brand. In the past, the amount of research you could do on a brand was limited to press releases and the few available news stories. The Internet, and more importantly search engines, changed all that. First, it became easy for everyone with a basic understanding of HTML to create a Web page dedicated to their most or least favorite brand. Armed with a little knowledge of natural search optimization, their Web page became visible to millions of people overnight.

As people's technical capabilities grew, brands started seeing their control over findable content diminish as consumers took the helm. In today's Web 2.0 world, one doesn't need to know HTML to share his/her feelings about a product. Whether posting reviews, creating videos, or launching a blog, anyone can publish their thoughts and make them visible to the world at large within minutes.

Key questions for a marketing executive are: "What defines my brand's authenticity?" and “How do I make my potential customers understand these qualities?” These are not easy questions to answer, especially if marketing expertise isn't leading the discussion. If every interaction with a brand helps define consumers' association and provides an opportunity for consumers to discuss this association, doesn't marketing need to have a say in product development and customer service (as two quick examples)?

A marketer's job is to promote his/her product or service's core attributes. So, if the product doesn't live up to expectations, who's at fault? If a brand attribute is "customer service-focused" and the customer service rep is anything but, is the marketing department to blame for poor sales trends? I'd like to answer yes. The reality, though? Marketing and sales are two separate departments.

With opportunity comes responsibility. Marketing professionals don't deserve responsibility unless they understand the importance of Web 2.0 technology.

The heart of marketing? Understanding the importance of consumer queries (search behavior). Delivering (accurate) brand-positive content at every point of query (Google, YouTube, iTunes, blog, mobile phone, news site, or other) is critical to building authenticity. After all, it's actually easier than ever for a marketer to communicate the brand message. The trouble for a marketer, as opposed to a consumer: most corporations aren't yet ready to embrace the entirety of the opportunity. The lack of readiness is both structural and emotional. They're fearful of results.

Back at the Google summit, the discussion turned to the use of celebrities as spokespeople. One of the biggest trends highlighted: celebrity endorsements on the wane. With consumers increasingly expecting sincerity, a celebrity must be a true band champion to make the endorsement ring true. The other big factor will further diminishes celebrity influence: consumers will continue to conduct their own re(search) and interact with the brand based on their real world experiences and the experiences of others.

Search-centric consumer behavior continues to enforce the need for marketers to embrace their authenticity. As consumers grab bits of control over the conversation, pertinent marketers have a message that fulfills the promises of their brand.

If the brand does not live up to its advertised promise, consumers will smell a rat. Any hint of authenticity will disappear. In a Web 2.0 world, they'll tell everyone. The marketer may be the last to know. Search-centric marketing requires companies to acknowledge authenticity and embrace the opportunity to discuss it, even when they're not actually involved in the conversation.


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